October 19, 2010
The internet as a new media model
An interesting example of the power and utility of the internet was a recent case in England. Simon Singh, in an article in the London Guardian, criticized the British Chiropractic Association "for claiming that its members could treat children for colic, ear infections, asthma, prolonged crying, and sleeping and feeding conditions by manipulating their spines… Singh said that claims were made without sufficient evidence, described the treatments as "bogus", and criticised the BCA for "happily promoting" them."
The BCA sued Singh personally under Britain's absurdly strict libel laws and he faced the possibility of financial ruin. But what happened was that a volunteer army of bloggers swung into action investigating every single claim of the chiropractors and showing that Singh's charge was true. As Ben Goldacre writes:
Fifteen months after the case began, the BCA finally released the academic evidence it was using to support specific claims. Within 24 hours this was taken apart meticulously by bloggers, referencing primary research papers, and looking in every corner.
Professor David Colquhoun of UCL pointed out, on infant colic, that the BCA cited weak evidence in its favour, while ignoring strong evidence contradicting its claims. He posted the evidence and explained it. LayScience flagged up the BCA selectively quoting a Cochrane review. Every stone was turned by Quackometer, APGaylard, Gimpyblog, EvidenceMatters, Dr Petra Boynton, MinistryofTruth, Holfordwatch, legal blogger Jack of Kent, and many more. At every turn they have taken the opportunity to explain a different principle of evidence based medicine – the sin of cherry-picking results, the ways a clinical trial can be unfair by design – to an engaged lay audience, with clarity as well as swagger.
But more interestingly than that, a ragged band of bloggers from all walks of life has, to my mind, done a better job of subjecting an entire industry's claims to meaningful, public, scientific scrutiny than the media, the industry itself, and even its own regulator. (my italics)
As a result, the chiropractors dropped their claim against Singh and may now have to pay his legal costs as well. The claims of the chiropractors have been exposed to the whole world.
Legendary journalist I. F. Stone was probably the prototypical blogger before the internet even existed, doing the kind of detailed analysis that good reporting requires and which requires a passion for the work. It cannot be just a job. Victor Navasky says that Stone,
although he never attended presidential press conferences, cultivated no highly placed inside sources and declined to attend off-the-record briefings, time and again he scooped the most powerful press corps in the world.
His method: To scour and devour public documents, bury himself in The Congressional Record, study obscure Congressional committee hearings, debates and reports, all the time prospecting for news nuggets (which would appear as boxed paragraphs in his paper), contradictions in the official line, examples of bureaucratic and political mendacity, documentation of incursions on civil rights and liberties. He lived in the public domain.
There is still an essential role for journalists to go out and gather first-hand information, questioning people, and obtaining documents. But they are inadequate when it comes to analysis either because they filter the raw information through the establishment lens or they simply do not have the time or knowledge or expertise to do a thorough examination and analysis. It is mostly bloggers who are now doing that kind of thing, picking up Stone's baton and working in the public domain to glean information that the big media journalists cannot or will not do. Of course, there is a huge amount of rubbish on the internet. But as time goes by, bloggers and their readers will become much better at what they do, the former becoming more careful and authoritative, the latter at being able to distinguish good sources of information from the bad.
I. F. Stone's own credo is a inspiration to all independent journalists and bloggers: "To write the truth as I see it; to defend the weak against the strong; to fight for justice; and to seek, as best I can, to bring healing perspectives to bear on the terrible hates and fears of mankind, in the hope of someday bringing about one world, in which men will enjoy the differences of the human garden instead of killing each other over them."